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International Space Station

Utilization, Commercialization, Assembly continues


ISS: Building the Human Community in Space Exploration!

The last shuttle mission to the International Space Station was STS-135 or the ISS assembly flight ULF- 7. It was the last mission of the American Space Shuttle program and also the final assembly mission. ISS assembly was considered complete at that time.

- - International Space Station's 20th anniversary - -
The 1st human crew boarded ISS on November 2, 2000!

U.S. National Lab

The International Space Station was designated as the U.S. National Laboratory by Congress, to enable space research and development under the 2005 NASA Authorization Act. This allowed open access to the US Laboratory on ISS for commercial, academic, and government users. The National Laboratory can be used to conduct research in life sciences, physical sciences, technology development and remote sensing.

national lab

NASA issued Research Announcements for ISS Utilization in 2012 and 2020 asking for proposals for Exploration Technology Demonstrations and National Lab Utilization Enhancements. Proposals will be accepted until December 31, 2024!

An active commercial partner for the National Lab is Nanoracks who has supplied a lot of logistics and made many educational programs possible. Many educational programs have been sent to ISS.


Tomatosphere is a free program that uses the excitement of space exploration to teach the skills and processes of scientific experimentation and inquiry. The Seed Foundation and the International Space Station National Lab work together to send tomato seeds to the International Space Station (ISS) and bring them back to Earth for classroom use. Students receive 2 packets of seeds to grow in their classroom. One packet has been to space and the other has not. Tomatosphere is a "blind test" as teachers and students don't not know which packet has the "space" seeds and which packet has the control seeds until the germination process is complete and results have been submitted.

Tomatosphere is just one example of how the National Laboratory can be used for education. Educators in the U.S. and Canada can register for free to receive tomato seeds that flew on the Space Station. More than 3.3 million students have participated since Tomatosphere started in 2001.

Space Station Assembly Continues

Even though the Space shuttle has stopped launching in 2011, that doesn't mean that ISS has not been growing! So here's what's new and what is happening today!

Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM)

BEAM is an experimental expandable space station module for testing the inflatable habitat concept. It was developed by Bigelow Aerospace under a NASA contract. Launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 Full Thrust, BEAM arrived at the ISS on April 10, 2016. It was a temporary module on the International Space Station (ISS) that was intended to last until 2020. The module's on-orbit performance had exceeded expectations, including resistance to micrometeors so it may remain on the station until 2028. BEAM is now being used for storage to free up space on the station.

Bigelow Aerospace

This video from Bigelow is too cool not to share!

Bishop Airlock

Bishop Airlock by NanoRacks mission patch

Nanoracks' Bishop Airlock, was launched on SpaceX's 21st cargo resupply (CRS-31) mission. It was installed on Node 3 on December 21, 2020. The airlock is a passageway that allows projects, research, satellites, tools, and more to move in and out of the ISS. It can be operated in pressurized or unpressurized mode. Bishop Airlock is a commercially-owned and operated "door" that allows 5 times the payload volume to pass through than was previously available on the JEM Airlock on Kibō module developed by JAXA. It is the the first commercial airlock ever installed on a space station.

Bishop is named after the bishop chess piece that moves diagonally across the chessboard. Now astronauts will be able to open a hatch inside the station to store items in the airlock. When they are ready to be released and the inner hatch is sealed. The ISS robotic arm, Canadarm2 will be operated from NASA's mission control to remove the outer airlock and deploy the payloads. When the item is removed the outer airlock hatch will be reattached to the station. Customers will pay Nanoracks when they use the airlock.

Nanoracks has deployed small CubeSats into orbit from the ISS through the Nanoracks CubeSat Deployer via the airlock in the Japanese Kibō module. The expertise gained from launching those small satellites will be applied to the Bishop airlock.

Nanoracks has assisted educators and commercial organizations access to space by supplying research boxes (small racks) to contain scientific experiments and small satellites and integrating them into the station's hardware. Nanoracks partnered with Boeing who fabricated and installed the Airlock's Passive Common Berthing Mechanism (PCBM) that is used to connect many of the pressurized modules to the ISS. The PCBM hardware was manufactured at the Boeing facilities in Huntsville, AL. The shell of the Bishop Airlock was built by Thales Alenia Space who also built the Tranquility Node where the airlock was attached.

As Bishop Airlock is privately-funded service, it is helping NASA to achieve the agency's goal of providing services for commercial customers in low-Earth orbit market instead of just government agencies. NASA, ESA, and a Japanese robotics company, GITAI, are among the first users of the Bishop airlock.

- - Learn more about Nanoracks on Astra's Commercial Space Development page.

New Solar Arrays provide more Power

New SpectroLabs solar arrays on ISS
New solar arrays on ISS

The SpectroLabs has developed an advanced solar power technology, their XTJ Prime solar cells that will be installed on the ISS. The same solar cells power Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.

Spectrolab is a Boeing company based in Sylmar, CA that will produce the new arrays’ XTJ Prime solar cells. The solar arrays to be launched will be some of the most powerful ever sent into space. They are the same solar cells that power Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft while in flight or when it is docked to the ISS. Spectrolab also produced the station’s original solar cells, as well as the solar cells tested on the prototype.

The 6 new arrays are 63-ft. by 20-ft. Together the arrays will produce more than 120 kilowatts of electricity from the sun. The advanced solar cells will provide 20 - 30 percent more power than the arrays that have served the ISS over 20 years. Solar arrays provide the ISS power for its systems, equipment, and laboratories that conduct research in the microgravity environment.

Russian Nauka ISS Module

Nauka ISS Module
The Nauka Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM)

The Nauka module was first constructed as a backup to the Zarya module currently on orbit. The design used for Nauka and Zarya is called the Functional Cargo Block (FGB). The FCB was designed as a service and storage module. It featured a spacious pressurized volume in its center, meant for cargo storage and docking equipment. On the outside of the FGB were fuel tanks, maneuvering engines, solar arrays, and docking port.

The Nauka will contain water and air purification systems, a new galley, and a toilet. Nauka is Russian for "Science" and after it is fitted to the ISS, Nauka will become the primary laboratory module on the Russian segment. It is also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM). Nauka will be attached to ISS at Zvezda nadir, an Earth-facing docking. This port is currently occupied by the Pirs Docking Compartment.

Zvezda ISS Module
The Zvezda module in 1988

Pirs was launched in 2001. It serves as a docking port for Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. It has two airlocks for astronauts to enter and exit the ISS for EVA's or spacewalks. Before Nauka can be attached to the ISS the PIRS module will be removed. A Progress space craft will carry cargo to the ISS and attach to the PIRS. The PIRS module will be unlatched from Zvezda and both the Progress and PIRS will be eased away from the station by the Progress vehicle. The Progress will deorbit with Pirs and be placed into destructive reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Pirs will be the first module of the Station to be permanently removed.

model of the Prichal at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center
Mockup of the Prichal Module

Roscosmos plans to build a new space station in Earth orbit called the Russian Orbital Station, or ROS. Like the commercial station discussed below, The ROS will eventually splinter away from the current International Space Station that will eventually be retired. (That date is 2030 today.) The Nauka module will be the heart of the new station and should be launched and added to the ISS on April 20, 2021.

Next they would launch a Node Module a component that would allow up to six other modules to connect to the new station. Other modules to be attached could be crew ships, cargo haulers, tankers, or other structural elements. This module is called Prichal or "Uzlovoi Modul"(UM) or Node Module in English. Prichal may also be used as the permanent core of the future ROS station. In that case, all other modules could be added or removed as they age or due to mission updates. It is or possible that Prichal could launch in September 2021 but the ISS will keep growing in the next few years.

Commercialization and Utilization

NASA took a major step announcing the low Earth orbit commercialization initiative, the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. NASA has a long-term goal to aid commercial development in space. The commercial effort intends to add astronaut training, scientific research, and technology demonstrations in low Earth orbit to the International Space Station.

Axiom Commercial Space Station

Axiom Space won a NextSTEP, a five-year base performance period and a two-year option contract to deliver a nodule to the space station. Although NASA funding has been sporadic, Axiom is building the first module with its own resources. The first astronauts to live in the Axiom station will pay for their space tour. Currently the price tag is $55 million US! This image was provided by Axiom Space to illustrate the commercial space station they invision.

model of the Prichal at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center
Axiom Commercial Space Station attached to ISS

Thales Alenia Space will provide two key pressurized elements for the Axiom Commercial Space Station. Axiom will be attached to the docking port on the ISS Harmony module. Axiom is intended to be a comfortable work place, as well as a tourist destination as soon as it can establish itself. The first two Axiom station elements to fly are Axiom Node One (AxN1) and Habitation Module (AxH). Once Axiom grows large enough and can power itself, it can spin off into a new orbit.

Space Station Elements

AxH1 is the first Axiom station module with living quarters for 4 crew members and space for research and manufacturing. AxH1 is also called Axiom Hab One. It will be the nucleus for human activity in Earth orbit. Each personal crew quarter is equipped with an Earth-viewing window and touch-screen communications panel. A docking adapter will allow visiting vehicles to dock to the Axiom Station. The module also includes 4 ports where additional future modules can be attached. Currently a launch date of 2025 is proposed.

AxH2 is the second node that Axiom hopes to launch. It adds four additional crew quarters and will bring the crew capacity of the Axiom Station to eight. It will give the Axiom station more microgravity research space and add eight new ports to dock visiting vehicles or future station modules. Currently a launch date of 2025 is proposed.

AxL, the third module planned for the Axiom station will be built from an ISS module once flown as the Multi-Purpose Logistics Module that was previously used to carry cargo to the station. It will be newly outfitted as a Axiom Laboratory module. This module will support research and manufacturing. The Lab will provide more space for industrial research and manufacturing that will be managed by astronauts on the Axiom Station. Currently a launch date of 2026 is proposed.

AxPT2027 is the last module, a solar power platform that provide the commercial modules power and cooling to allow separation with the ISS. It is also called the Axiom Power Tower. It will be attached to the zenith port of the Hub, with a solar array that can produce as much power as the current ISS solar arrays. It will expand the Axiom Station's environmental control and life support (ECLSS) capabilities, add additional storage, and provide an airlock for EVAs or spacewalks. Currently a launch date of 2027 is proposed.

Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1)

The proposed Ax-1 mission will include the crew living aboard the U.S. segment of the ISS for approximately eight days, participating in research and philanthropic projects.

- Crew Selections -

Michael López-Alegría named mission commander is a veteran astronaut. Larry Connor is 71 and president of the Connor Group. He will become the second-oldest person to go to space after John Glenn, who flew to space at 77 years old. Mark Pathy is a Canadian. Eaten Stub is a former Israeli fighter pilot. The crew will fly to the ISS and spend about eight days on the station.

International Partners

International Space Station Education

A few of the highly successful educational programs that were executed and hopefully many more space exploration and science programs will continue to excite the youth of the U.S.A. and other countries to move into STEM or STEAM fields.